LAUNCH: July 2002
nVidia's nForce2 was the fastest Socket 462/A motherboard chipset in existence for most of the later part of Socket A's lifetime. Socket 462/A was the fairly long-lived socket that the Athlon had used since the Athlon Classic abandoned Slot A at around 800MHz, and everything from Athlon Thunderbird 900MHzes to the Athlon XP 3200+ was Socket 462/A. It is now defunct, but at the time of writing hardly ancient, and right now the Athlon XPs are only technically obsolete. If you're wondering what a chipset is, it's (oversimplifying) a circuit plan drawn by a third party (such as SiS, Intel, and VIA) for use in motherboards, which are manufactured separately. If you're wondering what a motherboard is, well, that's another node. In the proud, highly annoying tradition of paper launching, nForce2 motherboards were not actually available until about November 2002. nForce2 has many interesting features that propelled it above and beyond VIA's competition (KT333, KT400, KT400A, even KT600) up until KT880, which was released too late for anyone to care. It should be worth noting that KT400A and onwards came out specifically to beat nForce2.
There are always too many of these. Always. Some of them are marketerspeak, others aren't. I could just lump everything in a paragraph, but the point of this node is to be informative. I'm not going to bother paying attention to the boring stuff like ATA-133; I'm listing what makes nForce2 the chipset it is. I can't think of a proper way to say "without further ado" without saying "without further ado" (I hate overusing phrases), so, uh, without further ado...
- TwinBank Memory Architecture
A fancy name for dual channel DDR. Odds are that still means nothing to you, so here goes. The motherboard has two memory controllers, each of which access their channel simultaneously. This will, in theory, double the memory bandwidth available; the actual result is quite close to double, if not exactly that. The trouble is that the Athlon usually has a 266MHz frontside bus; some of the fancy new ones have 333MHz and even 400MHz bus speeds, but that's not even enough to make full use of the memory bandwidth you'd get out of dual DDR266 (almost 533MHz). Now take into account that DDR266 AKA PC2100 memory is older than now-common DDR333/PC2700 memory, which in turn is older than DDR400/PC3200, which many enthusiasts use. It's using a bucket to hold a marble! It's building a hydroelectric power plant on a creek! It's DUAL DDR WITH THE ATHLON'S BUS SPEED! Okay, that's cruel. But it's still overkill.
- Updated IGP
Fancy name for northbridge. IGP is Integrated Graphics Processor, according to BabelFish's Marketer->English option. Yes, this is integrated video. If you're not running away screaming or frantically beating your monitor with a cross right now, you're probably scratching your head (or maybe you have an LCD you're afraid of damaging with the cross), so I'll clear things up a little: integrated video is a graphics card integrated directly into the motherboard. What's wrong with it? It is HORRIBLY slow. If the word "slow" was an object, it would be integrated video. If you've ever heard of Intel Extreme 3D Graphics or whatever the hell they call it these days, that is integrated video, and it is considerably slower than the TNT2 (itself a four-year-old update of the even older original TNT). This will show in games. This will show in screensavers. The original nForce chipset had an onboard GeForce2 MX200, which is also awfully slow, but about fifteen notches above normal integrated video. nForce2's IGP is based on the GeForce4 MX, which is not a terribly fast or modern card (it should be called the GeForce 2.5 Ultra, really), but is far, far, FAR beyond what one normally sees in integrated video. This makes nForce2 a nice choice for a reasonably speedy all-in-one system. If a motherboard doesn't have integrated video, it will have "SPP" (system platform processor) instead of IGP. After all, the IGP/SPP does other important motherboardy things, like run the AGP bus.
- MCP and MCP-T
Fancy name for southbridge. I should say or MCP-T, since the MCP-T is the jazzed-up version of the MCP. This effectively makes the other half of the chipset. The MCP has the nVidia ethernet controller, support for newer standards like USB 2.0, and the standard AC'97 integrated audio we all know and vaguely dislike. (If you don't know, AC'97 is generic onboard audio. ++common.) The MCP-T has nVidia's own audio processing unit (APU), a second ethernet controller, and Firewire support. As for "MCP2" and "MCP2-T", I have no idea whatsoever. My best guess is that they're the second-revision MCP and MCP-T, but they might be identical. I can't find anything about them.
- Advanced SoundStorm Audio
nVidia's fancy audio processing unit is above and beyond what one expects from integrated audio, though it's no top-of-the-line PCI sound card. (I'm not naming any cards. There is a surprising amount of conflict there that you don't want to know about and I don't want to get involved in.) Basically, it's a more advanced audio solution, with 6 channels, digital output, a Dolby Digital decoder, and much higher audio quality than you'd usually see in onboard audio. Unfortunately, it costs more, and a lot of manufacturers decided to skip it, so you'll have to look around to make sure it's actually got SoundStorm. Also, remember, SoundStorm isn't everything: if you pair the SoundStorm APU with a Realtek ALC650 or something, sound will still suck. So.
- "Ultra 400" and "400"
Some nForce2 boards are listed as "nForce2 Ultra" or "nForce2 Ultra 400." This indicates that the board is cleared for a 400MHz frontside bus; most non-Ultra boards are capable of this anyway, but it's always nice to know what you're going to get. Plain 400 is something totally different; it's single-channel. Remarkably, it performs almost as well as nForce2 Ultra 400 boards, even though it's not dual-channel. (Yes, it beats VIA's KT600 too.)
It might be handy to include what motherboards use the nForce2 chipset, in case you're looking at one and have no idea what chipset it is. With this list I'm including a few notes on the series and identifying the motherboard you have or want; not exactly an extensive review, but a couple comments you might find helpful. If you just want to know which one you should buy, that's pretty easy: the 8RDA+ for most of you (it has a decent amount of features, including an onboard NIC, but there's no integrated RAID controller or SATA support), and the NF7-S v2 if you need lots of features.
ABIT NF7 series
While ABIT's boards are usually highly respected, they rushed this to market, and there are several revisions of the board. Look for revision 2. Older revisions have a few problems, but 2.0 is a nice solid board. Brown PCB. NF7-M has onboard GeForce 4 MX, and NF7-S is the top-end model with Serial ATA, RAID, Firewire, and so on. Brown PCB.
+ v2.0s are superb and highly overclockable
- NF7-S is pricier than boards with less features like the 8RDA+; you might not get a revision 2 board
Albatron KM18 series
Albatron's boards are of moderate quality and speed. They're not too well-known, though their Intel 845PE board was popular. The KM18G seems to be the only one I can find, please tell me if you see any others. Micro ATX, 3 PCI slots, 2 DIMMs. Blue PCB.
+ Shiny, attractively priced
- Micro ATX only, apparently
Aopen AK79 series
Aopen usually make fairly cheap boards (both meanings of cheap here), and their nForce2 boards are no exception. There sure are a hell of a lot of them; looks like they're trying to cater to every single part of the market. If it begins with A it's ATX, if it begins with M it's Micro ATX. If there's a G after "79" there's an onboard GeForce 4 MX; if there's a D, there's not. -V is plain, -VN has an NIC, -1394 has an NIC and Firewire, and MAX has an NIC, Firewire, Serial ATA, RAID, and so on. There's a CNR slot on these for some reason. Grey-black PCB.
- Mediocre, ugly
ASUS A7N8X series
ASUS is considered by many the best motherboard manufacturer out there, and their A7N8X boards were very popular. They have a couple of quirks; apparently they hate Kingston PC2700, and will not accept black Radeon 9500s. (Apparently the black ones have some difference in their layout that makes them screw up with the A7N8X.) It has various compatibility problems, actually; if you're sure everything will work OK together, it's reliable enough, but it's hard to be sure. The Deluxe has all of the top-end features, the -X is Ultra 400 (but newer regular A7N8Xes and A7N8X Deluxes should have no trouble with 400MHz FSB anyway), and -VM is Micro ATX. Yellowy-olive PCB.
+ Made by ASUS
- Some memory problems, expensive
Biostar M7N series
Biostar make very cheap motherboards, and I don't recommend any of them. In fact, I recommend you shoot on sight. M7NCDP is Ultra 400 with standard features like a NIC and USB 2.0, M7NCG is Micro ATX. I don't know of any others, /msg me if you do. Brick red PCB.
+ Look sort of like the MSI K7N2s
- Are not the MSI K7N2s
Chaintech 7N series
Chaintech is towards the high end of the quality spectrum; they're not very well-known, because they usually stay out of the flashy high-end market, but their boards are usually reliable. Unfortunately these boards seem to have trouble with Corsair XMS. Curiously, they all have C-Media chips instead of the standard Realtek solution. The Zenith is their top-end model. The 7NJS Zenith is their top-of-the-line (with all the standard nForce2 top-end features). The Apogee has six-channel audio (like the Zenith), and the basic Summit has four-channel audio but is otherwise the same as the Apogee. The 7NIF2 is a Micro ATX Summit board. Charcoal PCB.
+ Good track record, superb reviews
EPoX 8R series
EPoX's boards have been getting steadily better since KT266A, and their 8R series is no exception. A G after the 8R indicates an onboard GeForce4 MX. A + after the name, like "8RDA+", indicates that it's one of the feature-y top-end boards. The 8RDA3+ is the new Ultra 400 board. The BIOSes in these boards are very tweakable, and highly recommended to overclockers. The 8RDA+ is probably the best nForce2 board for the money; inexpensive, feature-filled, stable, fast, and tweakable. The 8RDA3+ is nice, but overclocking is very hit-or-miss. Green PCB.
+ 8RDA+ is inexpensive, reliable, and well laid out
- No chipset voltage tweaking on any model but the 8RDA3+
FIC make mostly low-quality boards, like Biostar. The only board of theirs I can see is the AU13, which is a fairly standard board with MCP-T and SPP. No Firewire or Serial ATA, of course. I wouldn't really recommend it; while word is that the AU13 isn't bad, you can do better in this price range. Gray-green PCB.
- Not exactly first-tier
Gigabyte GA-7N series
Gigabyte's KT333 boards were known for their low reliability and high defect rate. However, the defect rate for their nForce2 boards is reasonable, and I can recommend their boards without losing sleep at night. The GA-7N400-L1 is their basic nForce2 Ultra 400 board, with a NIC and AC'97. The GA-7N400 Pro is their top-end board, with RAID and the like. The GA-7NNXP has a bizarre dual power system thingy to the left of the socket. In theory this helps regulate the power supply. I have no idea just how well it works, but it looks hilarious sitting there. The GA-7NNXP has a ridiculous amount of features and extras, and its good performance and overclockability make it highly recommended to anyone who wants a whole bucket of features with their motherboard. Blue-green PCB.
+ Funky power regulation thingy and ridiculous amount of features on 7NNXP
Leadtek K7NCR18 series
Leadtek is also known for fairly cheap parts; it's not quite as low as Biostar, but it's certainly getting there. The K7NCR18D is a fairly standard SPP+MCP job, but it only has 4 PCI slots for some reason. The K7NCR18D-PRO is their top-end model, and it has SoundStorm audio, but lacks RAID and a fifth PCI slot. Neither of these are recommended, and 4 PCI slots in a full-size motherboard is frankly bizarre. Where the fifth one should be is an ACR slot. ACR is sort of the inbred cousin of PCI; it's like PCI, except doesn't do nearly as much as PCI can. Yellow-green PCB.
- Only 4 PCI slots
MSI K7N2 series
MSI (Microstar International) is a first-tier manufacturer known for making fairly high-quality boards. Their nForce2 boards are good, like their last ones, but have some memory problems; checking MSI's site as msi.com.tw to see the list of supported memory modules would be a good idea if you're considering one of these. The K7N2 Delta models are nForce2 Ultra 400, the others are regular nForce2. "ILSR" models are top-end, with Serial ATA and RAID. Not bad, so long as you've made sure you've got memory that'll work properly with the board you've picked. Blood red PCB.
+ Reliable, attractive
- Not much space around the CPU socket
Soltek SL-75(F/M)RN series
Soltek usually make crappy motherboards, but their switch to higher-quality capacitors (Rubicon) recently has affected the quality of their newer motherboards greatly. Their nForce2 boards are actually halfway decent. (Their Intel 865 boards are supposedly pretty good too.) Shame about the color though. (That goes for the Intel 865 ones too, in fact; they're alarmingly purple, though, as opposed to bling-bling yellow.) The MRNs include an integrated GeForce4 MX, the FRNs don't. A "2" before the dash (like in SL-75FRN2-L) indicates a revision 2 board, which is equivalent to nForce2 Ultra 400. A board ending in L has onboard LAN, R has RAID and Serial ATA, RL has both, no dash/letters has neither. They're not bad, but for the price, you might as well just get an EPoX 8RDA+. Yellow-gold PCB.
+ Surprisingly good for the price
- Really, really ugly
PERFORMANCE AND CONCLUSION
nForce2 is certainly quite a fast chipset. It's a good idea that's executed well, and it shows. It managed to defeat the previous generation (KT333), the VIA chipset meant to compete with it (KT400), the VIA chipset released to beat it (KT400A), and (cough) the SECOND VIA chipset released to beat it (KT600). nForce2 remains a viable option for anyone wanting a great selection of fast boards, some of which sell for impressively low amounts. If you're considering buying one of these, it goes quite nicely with an Athlon XP 1700+ or an Athlon XP 2500+, which sell for something like $45 USD and $85 USD respectively shipped and will make for a highly overclockable system. Naturally if you just want a stable, cheap DDR board for your Thunderbird or Palomino, I would recommend KT266A, as there are some extremely cheap and highly stable boards out there, and nForce2 only really shines with a bus speed past 133MHz. If you want benchmarks and sweet, sweet bar graphs:
http://www.anandtech.com/chipsets/showdoc.html?i=1731 has AnandTech comparing it to KT333 and KT400. Gives an in-depth look at the chipset along with some benchmarks. Recommended.
http://www.anandtech.com/chipsets/showdoc.html?i=1796 has VIA's KT400A pitched against nForce2. KT400A loses. And it's very, very boring, since it loses by about 1% at everything. Trust me, Athlon chipset reviews are the most boring things on the planet, and I say this as someone who reads every one he can find. Uh, anyway, check this if you think KT400A would offer better performance.
http://www.anandtech.com/mb/showdoc.html?i=1835 shows KT600 losing against nForce2. And it's also very, very boring. You're going to burn for this, VIA.
http://www.techreport.com/reviews/2004q2/via-kt880/index.x?pg=1 shows KT880 beating nForce2 by astonishing margins of up to three percent. THREE WHOLE PERCENT. I mean, fuck a squid and stick an ice pick in my nose, that's not just one quantum leap-- it's TWO. You know what's the worst part? The marketing blitz surrounding these chipsets. Ignoring them would be a viable option if it weren't for five thousand banners everywhere you go announcing KT5400 ULTIMATE PERFORMANCE PLUS ALPHA. At least the SiS adverts are in Engrish. They can at least unintentionally entertain me while they bombard me with marketing. But VIA? Noooo, VIA have to hire a competent translator or two.
Sources are mostly memory. It's not really ancient history. http://www.anandtech.com/chipsets/showdoc.html?i=1731 provided some technical details.